A view of the Caucus from the Overton Window

"The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overton_window

The Overton Window matters in a Presidential election year because it not only determines the range of ideas that are discussed but also the range of candidates and, most importantly, the range and number of citizens who will or will not be enfranchised to participate in the democratic process. That in turn will determine the range of policy proposals that democratically elected officials will be encouraged to pursue in the following four years. If the interests of a segment of the population are not discussed in debates and town halls then then they will be disenfranchised and unrepresented in our democracy.

The political press plays a crucial role in determining the scope of the Overton Window.

Continue Reading...

Comparing Bernie Sanders' "America" to Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America"

The best commercial of the 2016 presidential campaign started running on Friday. Set to the classic Simon and Garfunkel song "America," the 60-second spot for Bernie Sanders evokes optimism and a sense of purpose. A dejected Hillary Clinton supporter told me a few days ago that this ad will win the Iowa caucuses for Sanders.

I don’t know about that, but "America" is so superb that I was inspired to compare its style and substance to one of the most famous presidential campaign ads of the 20th century. This 60-second spot for Ronald Reagan’s re-election campaign was originally called "Prouder, Stronger, Better" but is better-known as "Morning in America" because of its memorable opening metaphor: "It’s morning again in America."

Continue Reading...

Memo to journalists: Craig Robinson's firm makes money off the Iowa caucus campaign

Craig Robinson is among the go-to Republicans for national press covering the Iowa caucuses. His insights are partly informed by a wealth of experience: as a staffer on Steve Forbes’ presidential campaign before the 2000 caucuses, as political director of the state GOP during the year before the 2008 caucuses, and as publisher of The Iowa Republican blog since 2009.

One salient fact rarely, if ever, makes it into the news stories quoting Robinson about prospects for Republican contenders in Iowa: his company Global Intermediate has been paid to do direct mail for or against certain candidates in the field.

Continue Reading...

Weekend open thread: "Making a Murderer" edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers? This is an open thread: all topics welcome.

The more I hear about "Making a Murderer," the more tempted I am to become a Netflix subscriber so I can watch the ten-part documentary myself. The series follows the case of Steven Avery, released from prison after 18 years when DNA evidence showed he was innocent of the rape for which he had been convicted. A few years later, Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey were charged and convicted of murdering Teresa Halbach. The documentary suggests that Avery and Dassey, who are both serving life sentences, did not kill Halbach and did not receive fair trials.

Lee Rood has a front-page feature in today’s Des Moines Register about how problems highlighted in "Making a Murderer" point to the need for criminal justice reforms in Iowa, such as "uniform best practices for eyewitnesses and the mandatory recording of law enforcement interrogations." I’ve enclosed excerpts after the jump, but I strongly recommend clicking through to read her whole story.

Avery’s wrongful conviction for rape rested primarily on eyewitness testimony. The latest edition of the New Yorker contains an excellent piece by Paul Kix on how a similar "travesty led to criminal-justice innovation in Texas." Passages enclosed below cite Iowa State University Psychology Professor Gary Wells, who "has spent decades researching ways in which police lineups can be made more accurate." Wells testified at a hearing seeking to exonerate a man who had died in prison, serving time for a rape he did not commit. Some of Wells’ recommendations for improving police identification practices were incorporated into a Texas law.

Those measures are different from the reforms an Iowa working group proposed and Governor Terry Branstad endorsed in his speech to state lawmakers this week. But with statehouse Republicans and Democrats deeply divided over education spending, Medicaid privatization, and Planned Parenthood funding, criminal justice reform may provide a rare opportunity for bipartisan cooperation this year. I hope members of the Iowa House and Senate who applauded Branstad’s call to reduce racial disparities will also consider some of the steps Texas has taken to prevent wrongful convictions.

Speaking recently to the Marshall Project, the rape survivor whose mistaken eyewitness testimony sent Avery to prison during the 1980s recounted how seeing a picture of her real attacker doesn’t stir up any emotion for her. In contrast, she says, "I still see Steven Avery as my assailant even though I understand he wasn’t." I have read other accounts of traumatic memories being altered so that misremembered details evoke panic and terror. The way trauma affects the mind and body and the malleability of traumatic memories are major themes in Dr. Peter Levine’s latest book Trauma and Memory. I hadn’t heard of the book until I received a copy from a friend who found Levine’s approach to healing trauma life-changing.

A videotaped confession by Avery’s "low-functioning" nephew became a key part of the prosecution’s case in the trial that is the focus of "Making a Murderer." Des Moines defense attorney Gary Dickey told Rood, "Set aside Avery’s innocence or guilt, the most striking thing of the whole series is the clearly coerced confession of Brendan Dassey." It is surprisingly easy to manipulate a person to admit doing things that never happened, as shown by the New York Police Department’s ability to obtain false confessions from five teenagers accused of assaulting the "Central Park jogger" during the 1980s. Discussing that notorious crime, Saul Kassin, Psychology Professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Williams College, pointed out that "in some cases people accused of crimes, particularly kids and others who are limited intellectually, become so confused by the lies that they actually come to believe they have committed this crime they did not commit."

A chapter in Trauma and Memory focuses on "the pitfall of false memory," such as when therapists (either unscrupulous or well-meaning) induce patients to believe wrongly that they suffered ritual or sexual abuse as children. At the end of this post, I enclose a passage from Levine’s book addressing "malevolent police interrogation methods" used to implant inaccurate memories and thereby obtain false confessions or wrongful convictions.

Among other things, the final installment of "Making a Murderer" covers a post-script to the Avery case: the downfall of District Attorney Ken Kratz, who prosecuted Avery and Dassey. Ryan Foley, an Associated Press correspondent in Iowa, was working for the AP in Wisconsin when he reported that Kratz "sent repeated text messages trying to spark an affair with a domestic abuse victim while he was prosecuting her ex-boyfriend." Kratz lost his job over that despicable abuse of power, which he later blamed on mental health conditions and prescription drug dependence. All journalism students should listen to Foley’s interview with Kratz before the story appeared, a fascinating example of a newsmaker trying to intimidate a reporter. In quite a show of interrogation techniques, the DA warned that a "hatchet story" on his inappropriate behavior would reveal the journalist to be a "tool" for someone else’s political agenda. Kratz modulated his voice frequently—lecturing, mocking, shouting, even whispering—hoping to throw Foley off balance and trick him into revealing his sources.

Continue Reading...

"The View from Nowhere" in Iowa legislative news coverage

When politicians lie, opponents often echo longtime Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous words: You’re entitled to your opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

Politicians can get away with deception, however, when journalists present conflicting facts as opposing viewpoints in a "he said/she said" frame. So it was when Governor Terry Branstad recently touted phony job creation numbers, and reputable Iowa journalists hid behind "critics say" rather than acknowledging reality: no serious economist would recognize those statistics.

And so it was when the Des Moines Register again covered the Iowa Department of Revenue’s unprecedented attempt to rewrite tax code through the rule-making process. Statehouse reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel’s attention to the topic is welcome. The rule change has been an under-reported Iowa politics story this fall, even though it could have a huge impact on the state budget in coming years. Unfortunately, as was the case in earlier articles for the Register on the same controversy, Pfannenstiel avoided stating some important truths about the Branstad administration’s efforts, attributing such observations to "others" including "Democratic lawmakers."

The journalist’s reflex to appear impartial by presenting factual statements as partisan opinions is part of what media critic Jay Rosen has called the View from Nowhere.

Continue Reading...

The 15 Bleeding Heartland posts I worked hardest on in 2015

As I mentioned on Tuesday, writing is a labor of love for me. Some posts are much more labor-intensive than others.

All of the pieces linked below took at least a couple of days to put together. Some were in progress for weeks before I was ready to hit the publish button. (No editor, deadlines, or word limits can be a dangerous combination.) A few of the particularly time-consuming posts required additional research or interviews. More often, the challenge was figuring out the best way to present the material.

Several pieces that would have qualified for this list are not included, because they are still unfinished. Assuming I can get those posts where they need to be, I plan to publish them during the first quarter of 2016.

Continue Reading...
View More...